Friday, January 15, 2010

Church Stuff

In church, I am outwardly the proverbial bump on the log. Since my younger days, my reticence extends to arguably obstinate eccentricity. I don't exactly feel comfortable not responding when the preacher says, "Everybody that's happy in the Lord, raise your hand.", but I prefer the discomfort to the manipulated feeling I would suffer if I complied.
It is nothing personal to the preacher. His urging may be an earnest attempt to engender a consensus of corporate worship, and not a deliberate contrivance for control. But I know myself, and I know what one step down that road of, "It can't hurt." can lead to.
When it comes to impressions from God, erring on the side of maybe is dangerous. One too many times, I responded to ambiguity, and so doing, followed the trail of crumbs just far enough. The door slammed shut and the lights went out and I suddenly had no idea where I was.
If looking in the mirror one too many times was a sign of vanity, which time was too many? Before long, it becomes vain to comb your hair, and your appearance degenerates into that of a very sanctified bohemian.
If you can never pray too much, what minute is just enough? After a time, you begin to dread morning devotions and every moment spent in any activity other than prayer or Bible reading carries with it potential guilt.
If fasting one meal a week is good, then why not one meal a day, or two? God will surely see to your health even if you cease eating altogether, and the protestations of common sense are marginalized and evicted and stand outside hammering on the door demanding to be let back in.
If music can be a vehicle of the devil, then not listening to it at all must be the safest route.
If the sight of a woman can arouse lust in your teenage hormones, then casting your eyes down in public will preclude any possibility of sinning with your eyes.
Before long, you are completely neutralized as an effective saint, miserable and hopeful only of death, and even here, doubt prowls. If I were to die, would I really go to heaven?
But, I digress. And digress. And digress.
So, how important is harmony in corporate worship?
Belonging to a very small congregation pastored by a man with which I'm completely comfortable (except when I'm used as an illustration) isolates me somewhat from the issue.
But I remember what it is like. And being so accustomed to sitting under the ministry of a pastor whose tastes and deportment are so oddly like my own, I squirm all the more when I'm in an unfamiliar church setting and the pastor or song leader (worship leader to you contemporary worship parishioners) asks for a show of hands on anything from loving the Lord to being happy in the Lord to being happy to be in church tonight, amen.
And the cheerful suggestion of a nice round of hand-shaking and one-arm hugging to the tune of "I'm So Glad I'm a Part of the Family of God," is enough to turn me into an absolute extension of the seat itself; a veritable pew ornament as wooden as the hymnal holders and as stuffy as the padding.
I feel manipulated, and I think it's corny. If I really wanted to go tell Bro. So-and-So how glad I am to see him and how much I appreciate him, I'd go tell him without any prompting from pulpit authorities and if Bro. So-and-So isn't a dim-bulb, he'll get a lot more out of the involuntary appreciation as opposed to the church-sanctioned variety.
Advocates will tell you it's just an opportunity for everyone to take a break from the ordered portion of the service to greet everyone and foster camaraderie.
I say, then what is all that jawing in the back thirty minutes prior to and following the service? Warm-up and after-glow, I guess.
And the "How many (insert platitude), raise your hand and say amen" thing is a complete mystery to me.
When did this start? And why?
Are they hoping the wet blankets will out themselves? Looking for lightning rods? Looking to bolster their own stage confidence?
How much of corporate worship is uninhibited burden sharing and accountability and how much of it is peer pressure?
I know there is a place for one and none for the other, but I'm beat if I know how to tell the difference. And don't we need to somehow distinguish the sometimes uncomfortable moments of one from the sometimes embarrassing fiascos of the other?
I know that in church you have people which can occasionally lead to messy, merely sentimental situations and not every moment in church can be deeply, quietly spiritual.
But I also feel that somewhere along the line we've allowed a lot of stuff to attach itself to our church practices and it has weighed us down, like those ads keep telling me that hamburger I ate two week ago is weighing down my colon.
So, anybody else out there?
Or, am I just being a stick-in-the-mud?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

When Will These Things Come To Pass?

It may be presumptuous of me, but I expect most of you are interested, to varying degrees, in prophecy; particularly, prophecy dealing with the end of the age.
It is an easy assumption for me to make, considering you would have to be blind and deaf to Christian, especially evangelical, culture, not to have come across the subject almost as often as you have come upon the prayer that was Jabez', or the life that is driven by purpose.
Why the dramatic escalation of interest in the topic?
Is it the preoccupation of America with a terrorist element that threatens to bring war upon us, and more significantly, prophetically speaking, the nation of Israel?
Is it the unprecedented possibility of mass destruction, in the form of the proliferation of lost, orphaned nukes floating into the hands of madmen and giving new force to the concept of the heavens melting with fervent heat?
Is it a fad? Christian culture is not the only sub-culture fascinated with apocalyptic scenarios.
Some ancient Mayans laid the groundwork for quite a firestorm when they ended their calendar in the year 2012. Hollywood picks it up, and the rest is cinematic history.
You could even make the case that global warming alarmists are simply obsessed with global destruction.
Or, is it the dispassionate observation of events juxtaposed with Scripture?
The formation of that last question may give you the idea that I've already made up my mind.
Not entirely. I think all of the above-mentioned are factors.
The idea of the end of the world is certainly provocative and arresting, so fascination with the topic, given all the current global unrest, is to be expected.
I have tried to back off from my "feelings" regarding the subject many times precisely because I don't wish to be caught up in any faddish frenzy.
I have asked myself if the similarities between end-times prophecies and current events are not as easy to conjure up as the similarities between the words of Nostradamus and 9-11.
Are direct connections between Russian-Iranian alliances and Gog-Magog alliances as easy to construe as the death of Princess Diana written in between the lines of Scripture as postulated in the Bible Code?
There is undeniably a great deal of sensationalism connected with the topic, but it only obscures the issue.
I can't coherently discuss all aspects of prophecy because I'm not an authority on the subject, but in the interest of remaining objective, I have tried to research the camp that bills itself as the voice of reason.
The sheer seismic proportions of the topic have created an almost proportionate tsunami of skepticism. I mean to say, one fad has created another.
There are plenty of dissenting viewpoints on the imminence of the end of the world.
But, (and this is what I mean to point out in this blog) it is more than a little frustrating to set out looking for cool, rational opponents of "dispensationalism", and find nothing, (so far) except sneering, mocking, sarcastic evangelical haters.
Google dispensational millennialism and you quickly gain the idea that the very term "dispensational millennialist" is as much an epithet as a description.
The accusations of sensationalism, exploitation and abandonment of the lost fly thick and fast in conjunction with some highly suspect interpretations of Scripture.
For example, "The dispensational theory of premillennialism has gained great popularity mainly among modern evangelicals. The dispensational view of premillennialism, with its elaborate conspiracy theories, time tables, charts and graphic scenarios, is essentially a chiliast error. It has been most often accompanied by the false notion that the Second Coming is a predictable event with an identifiable time-table. This is despite Christ’s warning that “it is not for you to know the times or the seasons” (Acts 1:7)."
This comes from a fellow named Jay Rogers.
First you have the initial connection drawn between premillennialism and evangelicals, a connection every bit as damning as the one between aerosol cans and the big hole in the ozone layer. It is sufficient to say that if one is connected in any way to any idea that is held largely by an evangelical-minded segment of Christianity, he is not only immediately disregarded, he is immediately an accessory.
Hence the syllogism: All premillennial dispensationalists are evangelicals.
All evangelicals are ignorant, intolerant rubes.
Thus, all premillennial dispensationalists are ignorant, intolerant rubes.
Conspiracies? Time tables? Premillennialists often believe the Second Coming is a predictable event with an identifiable timetable? Who on earth has Mr. Rogers been reading after? I don't know of a single prominent premillennialist, excluding Whisenant, who has offered any such idea.
Mr. Rogers and his colleagues apparently expect all literalists to smile pretty for the camera while they photo shop in the straw man and smack the stuffing out of his 88 reasons for '88.
Further down into Mr. Rogers explanation of all that is wrong with dispensationalism, I found what appears to be a complete fabrication. He accuses Tim LaHaye of setting an exact date for the Second Coming in the Left Behind series. Aside from the fact that if Tim LaHaye is writing a novel, by definition, a work of fiction, he should be able to set all the dates he wishes without fear of conspiracy theorists like Mr. Rogers accusing him of setting literal timetables, there is the inconvenient truth that, after checking my copy of Tribulation Force, surprise, I find no dates.
(I hold Mr. Rogers personally culpable for the toe I stubbed running to locate my copy of Left Behind to find the date of the Rapture in the interest of maxing out all my credit cards.)
But further down still, I find a telling remark. In Matthew 24, Jesus gives the disciples an evanescent glimpse of the future: "And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory."
I had a glimpse into what makes Mr. Rogers tick when I read this phrase regarding the above passage. "The highly figurative language used here-"
It is extremely difficult to have a productive debate on anything Biblical when any given passage is subject to the "figurative" dodge.
What it is about Jesus' statement here or anything in the previous verses that gives Mr. Rogers the impression Jesus is employing poetic license?
The previous verse mentions the sun being darkened, the moon giving no light, and the stars falling from the sky. Rogers doesn't interpret that for us, but I'm certain there is some highly figurative explanation for that as well.
Rogers apparently subscribes to full preterism and reconstructionist postmillennialism, the respective views that end times prophecy was fulfilled in the first century A.D. and that the church itself will usher in the millennial reign, setting up a 1000 yr. (possibly figurative again) theocracy.
Again, he states, "Matthew 24:35 through the end of chapter 25 do not refer to 'all the evil things we see happening today,' but to judgment progressively falling on the wicked to remove them from the world as the kingdom of God advances."
I never felt that eschatology should necessarily be a contentious issue, but perhaps I'm being a little naive.
It isn't simply a matter of a time difference.
The fact is, you believe what you believe about the end-times because your view of Scripture in general informs it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year (but let's not get carried away)

Once upon a Sunday School contest, the teacher, in a shocking display of positive reinforcement, promised a prize to the industrious student who logged a certain amount of Scripture reading in a given week.
I don't remember the prize. (Actually, I don't remember the teacher.)
What I do remember is going on a Bible binge. . . . for a couple of weeks.
It was not to last. Not even the prospect of a prize could perpetuate the motivation.
Are you ready for this? I got bored with it.
I also remember the steady discipline of my friend Darren. He consistently polished off a reasonable number of chapters every week and received the prize and effusive praise from the teacher whose name continues to elude me.
(Darren, if you're out there, was it the benefits of the reading or was it the prize?)
Since then, I have made many resolutions and I contend it is not so much the lack of will that sees so many of my plans end in partial completion.
It is more a matter of my having an inherent dislike of redundancy.
Before you judge me immature, let me say I have managed to develop a few constructive habits over my life.
I have fallen into eating, almost every day, quite naturally.
I sleep almost every night without fail.
I have also managed to develop a habit of kissing my wife quite regularly.
I usually go to work throughout the week.
On the flip side, I often lament my dislike for repetition when it comes to brown bagging.
Trying to think of something, anything, from week to week that sounds appetizing is a challenge, and I do wish I were the type that could exist contentedly on a pb&j every lunch from now till retirement, but my taste buds won't cooperate.
I once drank only Dr. Pepper, until one day I hated it, then I switched to Coke. For a time, then . .
I listen to classical for a time until my brain grows suddenly weary of trying to interpret the sometimes obscure artistic inspiration.
And then after a stint of more modern fare, I begin to feel like I've eaten at Wendy's five days in a row.
I resolve to read all the classics; Dickens, Defoe, Dostoevsky. After a period of this, I read some theology and philosophy; John Calvin & Thomas Hobbes.
Then I read some modern fiction and usually remember why I was reading classics.
What I'm trying to say is,
No, I'm not making any New Year's resolutions.